Re-engaging with the West African ethnographic archive
'Fire Brigade', Benin City, January 1909
Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate…
Sande Society maskers and recording of female vocal group recorded by N. W. Thomas, Toma, Sierra Leone, 24 February 1915.…
Between 1909 and 1915, N. W. Thomas conducted four extensive anthropological surveys in West Africa: three in areas corresponding with parts of present day Edo, Delta, Anambra and Enugu states in Southern Nigeria, and one in mainly northern Sierra Leone. We have reconstructed Thomas's itineraries from fieldnotes, letters and information associated with his photographs, sound recordings and collections.
[Re:]Entanglements seeks to research and rearticulate the collections originally assembled by the anthropologist N. W. Thomas in the early years of the twentieth century in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. What does this remarkable ethnographic archive mean for different people today?
Between 1909 and 1915, N. W. Thomas conducted four extensive anthropological surveys in West Africa: three in areas corresponding with parts of present day Edo, Delta, Anambra and Enugu states in Southern Nigeria, and one in mainly northern Sierra Leone.
During the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be retracing N. W. Thomas’s itineraries in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and depositing copies of Thomas’s historic photographs and recordings with present-day communities in the places he visited as well as conducting new research.
[Re:]Entanglements is the website of a project entitled ‘Museum Affordances’ funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which is re-engaging with a remarkable ethnographic archive – including objects, photographs, sound recordings, botanical specimens, published work and fieldnotes – assembled by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915. As well as better understanding the historical context in which these materials were gathered, the project seeks to examine their significance in the present. What do these archives and collections mean for different communities today? What actions do they make possible? How might we creatively explore their latent possibilities?
The project is being led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London and involves a growing number of partnerships in the UK, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and beyond. These include the many institutions across which this ethnographic archive has been dispersed, including the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the British Library Sound Archive, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the UK National Archives.
As the project develops, we’ll be adding lots of material to the website relating to the culture and heritage of Nigeria and Sierra Leone. If you are interested in finding out more or would like to get involved please contact us!